ACE Dance and Music: Unknown Realms

Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry
October 23, 2022

ACE Dance and Music’s Unknown Realms double bill, their first new works since before the pandemic, sees them collaborate with two internationally noted black male choreographers: Serge Aimé Coulibaly from Burkina Faso and Vincent Mantsoe of South Africa.

The company’s seven dancers were outstanding. The quality and physicality of the dancing could not be faulted. The togetherness in unison moments was exceptional. Most striking was the power however, whether visible in movement as in Coulibaly’s TNBT – The Night Before Tomorrow or more quietly internalised as in Mantsoe’s so aptly titled Mana – The Power Within.

Although Coulibaly’s work has its roots in African culture, it translates well to contemporary society anywhere.

ACE Dance and Music in Serge Aimé Coulibaly’s TNBT – The Night Before Tomorrow
Photo Brian Slater

The floor is covered with synthetic grass. There’s a wooden table and a couple of wooden benches. It’s a garden. But it’s no Eden. This is a society and a community where everyone is on edge. Although the work purports to question what frustrates in the world today, what is more obvious is how that frustration bubbles to the surface and manifests itself, first in an animated falling solo, but then more vividly in aggression towards one another.

As Yvan Talbot’s Afrobeat soundscape plays on, mini narratives are everywhere. One of the women talks to an imaginary friend, another appears to cry for help. But by far the most interesting is Mthoko Mkhwanazi, who, for a long time, just sits and stares, not joining in with the communal outpouring.

What one presumes is an escape from reality comes as the aggression fades and we unexpectedly find ourselves at some sort of house party or seedy nightclub. While the now jazzy music is more interesting, the choreography soon starts to lose focus and impact. A political statement about colonialism makes a powerful point but somehow doesn’t seem to fit. A final solo, by one of the women atop the table as the others watch, suggests the escape of the party was only temporary, however.

Mana – The Power Within by Vincent Mantsoe
Photo Brian Slater

More impressive is Mantsoe’s Mana – The Power Within. ‘Mana’ is a term specifically used in over twenty-four countries, notably in Melanesia and Polynesia, although similar concepts exist in almost all belief systems and cultures. It is best described as a spiritual energy and power that can exist in places, objects and persons, that can be gained and lost, and be both external and internal.

Mantsoe’s choreography and staging emphasises the sacred. Although his work tends to be steeped in the cultures of his South African homeland, Mana reaches across beliefs and places. Perhaps the prompt came from works seen previously, but I could not help but see a Central Asian, Silk Road connection.

It feels timeless. Andy Garbi’s ambient music floods the space adding to the powerful sense of ritual as the six dancers emerge from the upstage shadows. As they move around and between the bamboo poles that decorate the stage, it feels like we are part of a spiritual encounter with dusty ghosts from the past but who inhabit the present.

It’s often slow and precise, although a soloist breaks out occasionally. An early solo by falling, rolling solo by Nomasonto Radebe is particularly potent and visceral. Intriguingly, little connections with TNBT crop up, both in the nature of some individual moments, and in pointing fingers and silent screams.

In a perfect ending, the figures, who have held the audience rapt for thirty minutes retreat quietly back into the shadows.

Mana, the stuff of which dance magic is made.